Bernard E. Harcourt | On Political versus Cultural Revolution

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony is what breathes life into the idea of the “engaged philosopher.” It is the condition of possibility for there to be engaged philosophers—or, more precisely, for engaged philosophers to play a central role in social transformation, rather than to take a second seat to revolutionary political actors or even revolutionary philosophers (what we are calling in this seminar “worldly philosophers,” such as Fanon or Nkrumah).[1] Insofar as the engaged philosopher (such as Sartre), who starts from the same deep training in humanities and social studies as the worldly philosopher, aims to revolutionize fields such as literature, poetry, theatre, or philosophy, their ambition depends on culture having a primary or important role in transformations of society. The notion of cultural hegemony, of “cultural Marxism”—or at least, the interpretation we commonly give to the Gramscian notion of “hegemony”—is what allows critical theorists and philosophers, especially in the academy, to believe that they have a distinct role in social and political transformation. It is what makes possible, or productive, for instance, the turn to subjectivity and practices of the self, or the linking of ethics and politics, or the study of governmentality, or the archeology of epistemological layers of thought: it is only when those ways of being, worldviews, and cultural formations are at the core of human behavior that they acquire a potentially revolutionary dimension.

But what if this cultural work only has traction after the political struggle? What if the cultural engagement cannot serve as the groundwork for social transformation until there has been a genuine political revolution? What if, in fact, all the engaged cultural work is likely to be turned against itself if the political conditions are not yet right, if the relations of class or race are still trapped in forms of domination? That was, of course, Lenin’s central point in some of his last articles, “On Cooperation,” written on January 4 and 6, 1923.[2] Lenin argued there that the cultural revolution had to follow, as a second step, a political and social revolution that placed political power in the hands of workers and put an end to class struggle; and that, absent that, any form of cultural transformation would be coopted by the still ruling class. If that is right, then the work of cultural producers, of critical theorists, and of engaged philosophers, has to wait and take second seat to a political transformation of society.

This raises a series of questions—three in particular—that I would like to address in this essay. First, is the ambition of the “engaged philosopher” counterproductive? Must the work of the revolutionary political actors and revolutionary philosophers precede the interventions of the engaged philosopher? Second, and to come back to Seyla Benhabib’s challenge, is this a question for critique, or praxis, or is it a matter of strategy and tactics? And third, insofar as the problematic itself feels so much more concrete than traditional debates in critical theory, why is it that these questions end up feeling (at least to me) so flat-footed and untheoretical? Why do they feel outdated or unsophisticated, crude, basic, naïve—when in fact they are so important for the Left and even the New Right today? Let me address these three questions in turn.

1. On Political and Cultural Revolution

Lenin articulates his thesis about the timing of the cultural revolution in the context of a critique of utopian socialists, such as Robert Owen, in his two articles “On Cooperation.” The articles serve as a broader rehabilitation of cooperative societies, which Marx had disparaged as merely a tainted step on the way to communism and which Lenin had also, as a result, not paid sufficient attention to. Lenin proposes that cooperative societies will operate as the primary mechanism to bring the mass of agricultural workers (the “peasants”) into the fold of socialism. It is in the context of that argument that Lenin critiques the utopian socialists (the “old cooperators”) as “ridiculously fantastic,” “romantic,” “even banal.”[3]

Lenin suggests that utopian socialists, such as Robert Owen, were “fantastic” because they failed to account for class struggle. They aspired to a peaceful transition to a cooperative society, without ever recognizing, as Marx correctly had, that it would be necessary first to have a class correction, to level the social field. Without first clearing the ground of class conflict, class struggle would infuse and corrupt any new forms of economic exchange based on cooperation. Lenin spells this out in the second article, dated January 6, 1923:

Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class. That is why we are right in regarding as entirely fantastic this “cooperative” socialism, and as romantic, and even banal, the dream of transforming class enemies into class collaborators and class war into class peace (so-called class truce) by merely organizing the population in cooperative societies.[4]

So Lenin argues that there first needs to be a political and social revolution; only after that, can there be a shift toward cooperation. The transition to a cooperative society will take several steps, the first being the overthrow of the ruling class and the seizing of the means of production. That is the prerequisite to any further change, because it creates the neutral environment that rids subsequent efforts at transformation of resurgent class conflict. A prerequisite is the eradication of class conflict, according to Lenin: “socialism cannot be established without a class struggle for the political power and a state.”[5] This had neither been achieved by the time of, nor was in the blueprint of, say, Robert Owen’s A New View of Society(1813). But it had been achieved in Russia by 1923, and this made all the difference.[6] It is what allows Lenin to push forward to the next stage, cooperatives. As Lenin explains:

see how things have changed now that the political power is in the hands of the working-class, now that the political power of the exploiters is overthrown and all the means of production (except those which the workers’ state voluntarily abandons on specified terms and for a certain time to the exploiters in the form of concessions) are owned by the working-class.[7]

Only when the political revolution has been accomplished, could there then be a shift toward culture: it is only then, when political power is in the hands of the workers, that there is a place for cultural transformation, or what Lenin refers to as “a cultural revolution.”[8] Lenin explains:

The radical modification is this; formerly we placed, and had to place, the main emphasis on the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power, etc. Now the emphasis is changing and shifting to peaceful, organizational, “cultural” work. I should say that emphasis is shifting to educational work, were it not for our international relations, were it not for the fact that we have to fight for our position on a worldscale. If we leave that aside, however, and confine ourselves to internal economic relations, the emphasis in our work is certainly shifting to education.[9]

That shift toward education, that cultural revolution, is necessary to render agricultural workers literate and to organize them in cooperative societies: “the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organize the latter in cooperative societies,” Lenin writes; “the organization of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture […] that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.”[10] In Russia, Lenin argues, political and social revolution had—and had to—precede a cultural revolution.

On this view, the role of the engaged philosopher, insofar as they are intervening in literature, poetry, theatre, or philosophy, is secondary—actually, it must wait for a social and political transformation. Otherwise, it is positively counterproductive. It will be cannibalized by class struggle.

And this is not just a question of “well, it’s a little of both: we need both simultaneously, political and social transformation and cultural transformation; so it’s equally important for philosophers to be engaged in cultural production.” No, on the contrary, any such work will be coopted by the elites. In effect, the engaged philosopher needs to sit tight and wait for the revolutionary philosophers to do their work—I’m simplifying, obviously, but you get the idea.

As a result, it becomes clear that it is really the Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony—as commonly understood—that places the critical theorist and engaged philosopher at the heart of the struggle. But is that right? Or is it just hubris?

2. Praxis, Strategy, Tactics

This leads me, second, to the question whether these questions are a matter of mere strategy or tactics, and whether they even rise to the level of “crisis, critique, and praxis”? What of all of this is strategy, what is tactic, and how does it relate to critical theory?

As I’ve noted before, this line of questioning has its source in Seyla Benhabib’s challenge that our discussions of critique and praxis slide too easily into mere strategic or tactical considerations—that, as Benhabib writes in her essay “On the unity and dissonance of Critique and Praxis,” our conversation “conflates strategy and philosophy; critique and tactics.”[11] It feels to me that our conversation regarding “worldly philosophers” has reverted several times to this challenge, and so it is becoming clear to me that we will need a longer session on this matter. Some preliminary thoughts here, though.

In a broad sense, we tend to think of strategy as longer-term goals and of tactics as the instrumental means or steps to get there. Michael Hardt and Toni Negri define strategy as “the ability to see far, make decisions, and enact comprehensive long-term political projects”; the realm of tactics, on the other hand, they associate with “swift action,” execution, and “specific expertise.”[12]

The terms “strategy” and “tactic” are of military origin, and generally refer to the planning and conduct of a war as a whole or of merely a battle, respectively. The military terms, though, have received much greater definition in different historico-political contexts. Clausewitz famously defined strategy as “the employment of the battle to gain the end of war”[13]; he contrasted tactics as the art of using troops in a particular battle to strategy as the art of using particular battles to win the war. In U.S. military history, we often refer to General Sherman as having adopted a “strategy” of “total war” when he marched his troops from Atlanta to the sea. With the rise of counterinsurgency warfare during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the publication in 2006 of General David Petraeus’s U.S. Army counterinsurgency field manual FM 3-24, some military strategists argue that the U.S. inverted strategy and tactics, privileging tactics over strategy, leading to what some call a new “strategy of tactics.”[14]

The terms also received a lot of attention in Marxist-Leninism. Joseph Stalin had a long discussion of “Strategy and Tactics” in The Foundations of Leninism, Section VII.[15] Drawing specifically on Lenin’s writings, he defined strategy there as “the determination of the direction of the main blow of the proletariat at a given stage of the revolution, the elaboration of a corresponding plan for the disposition of the revolutionary forces (main and secondary reserves), the fight to carry out this plan throughout the given stage of the revolution”; and tactics as “the determination of the line of conduct of the proletariat in the comparatively short period of the flow or ebb of the movement, of the rise or decline of the revolution, the fight to carry out this line by means of replacing old forms of struggle and organisation by new ones, old slogans by new ones, by combining these forms, etc.”[16] The contrast amounts to the following: “While the object of strategy is to win the war against tsarism, let us say, or against the bourgeoisie, to carry through the struggle against tsarism or against the bourgeoisie to its end, tactics pursue less important objects, for their aim is not the winning of the war as a whole, but the winning of some particular engagements or some particular battles, the carrying through successfully of some particular campaigns or actions corresponding to the concrete circumstances in the given period of rise or decline of the revolution. Tactics are a part of strategy, subordinate to it and serving it.”[17]

The exact definitions of strategy versus tactics vary. But what should be clear from these different definitions is that, especially when we use the terms in relationship to critique and praxis, we have in mind a continuum, on a “practice” spectrum, from the more global and overarching to the more specific and situated. To say that the discussion of critical theory is veering into strategic considerations, or worse, tactical matters, is to suggest that we are in the weeds, in an area in which our philosophical expertise no longer has purchase—that practical considerations, and not philosophical considerations, should guide us.

But where do we draw that line when we want to engage in philosophy that has an impact on the world and is not merely self-referential? Or, how do we draw that line when, based on some of the original insights of critical theory, we are inherently engaged in a reflexive exercise that is itself, by definition, shaped by our punctual historical situation?

The question whether the engaged philosopher who attempts to transform culture is actually helping or hindering social and political transformation seems to have a strategic or even tactical component to it, although it is squarely a question for critical theory and praxis. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism may exemplify the pitfalls of cultural change in a time of reigning capitalism and class struggle. They demonstrate brilliantly how the cultural revolution of the 1960s—in terms of liberation movements and practices of the self—was coopted and ultimately fed into a new Silicon Valley kind of hipster work environment that has strengthened American capitalism.[18] How to engage in cultural transformation that does not bolster existing class and racial structures would seem to be a matter of praxis, strategy, and tactics.

3. Flatfooted and Reductionist?

Why is it, though, that whenever our discussions inch closer to strategy or tactics, it feels that they become crude and unsophisticated? It feels as if we quickly descend into a kind of outdated, basic discourse, in some ways reminiscent of Marxist-Leninism. It feels overly instrumental, too practical. Not sufficiently philosophical. It feels that we just don’t need philosophy or philosophers any more. Isn’t that, at least in part, what Benhabib is warning us about when she cautions that our discussion “conflates strategy and philosophy; critique and tactics”?[19]

Are these questions, then, “beneath us” as philosophers? Or, on the contrary, is the problem that we have no expertise or authority to address them? Are they in fact “above our pay grade”? What would make us think we have anything to contribute to these deeply political strategic questions? Or is it that they are just not theoretical enough, and so not appealing to philosophers?

“That’s all well and good in practice… but how does it work in theory?”

Yes, things get terribly flatfooted in practice. So pedestrian. And we so often yearn to elevate them by asking how it works in theory.

I loved that chiasmus when I was at the University of Chicago. It was one of the most popular mottos on undergraduate T-shirts and sweatshirts when I was teaching there.[20] It captured everything that I loved about the University of Chicago and about life there more generally—the life of the mind, ideas, thought, critique, philosophy, theory. Practice was always too flat-footed, too mechanical, too simple. There were rarely those ‘aha’ moments in practice, it was only when we transformed practice into theory that the world became interesting, unusual, unexpected.

Maybe some people are too cerebral—I never thought I’d say that! Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! But maybe, and maybe those penchants should be redirected to something other than the political—perhaps to art, or music, or literature. Maybe we spoil art, music, and literature precisely when we instrumentalize them. But is it ever possible not to? That was Sartre’s point: abstention is a choice as well. But then what explains Sartre’s fascination for Gustave Flaubert? Recall that he spent the last ten years of his life writing a massive psychobiography of Flaubert, which he left unfinished at his death.[21]The same Flaubert that Sartre decried in 1945 as responsible for the repression of the Commune and the deaths of the Communards, because he “did not write a single line to prevent it.”[22] The same Flaubert who, Sartre wrote in Situation II in 1948, “did not engage himself.”[23] The same Flaubert who, Sartre added, “haunts me like remorse.”[24]

That’s all well and good in theory, but I confess, what matters to me more right now is justice and equality in practice. If that comes at the expense of professional philosophy, so be it? If we can continue to unveil the illusions we create in the process?


[1] I am tentatively drawing a distinction between the “engaged philosopher” like Sartre who intervenes in cultural fields such as theatre or literature and the “revolutionary” or “worldly philosopher” like Nkrumah who intervenes in the political field. The viability of the former, not the latter, depends on culture being a key force in politics. The model of the “vanguard intellectual,” of course, does not depend on that cultural mediation; but I would place the vanguard intellectual within the category of the worldly philosopher.

[2] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” Pravda (No. 115-116) May 26-27, 1923 (written January 4-6, 1923, reproduced in Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Ed. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), Volume 33, 467-75, available here

[3] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *1 and *5.

[4] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *5-6.

[5] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *6.

[6] Here too there is some sequencing that is necessary, Lenin argues elsewhere. The political revolution, you will recall, is a two-step process, first the bourgeois revolution, followed, second, by the proletariat revolution—this is the core of Lenin’s April Theses. This is something that Ho Chi Minh would emphasize in his actions and writings, and where things become highly strategic. For Ho Chi Minh, as for Lenin, strategic alliances become the central issue. See generally Ho Chi Minh, Down with Colonialism! ed. Walden Bello (New York: Verso, 2007).

[7] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *6.

[8] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *6.

[9] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *6.

[10] Lenin, “On Cooperation,” pdf at *6.

[11] Seyla Benhabib, “On the unity and dissonance of critique and praxis,” British Journal of Sociology 72, no.3 (June 2021): 862.

[12] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (New York: Oxford, 2017), 291.

[13] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book III, Chapter 1, ‘Strategy” available at

[14] See, e.g., Gian P. Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2009, at 7, available at

[15] Joseph Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, in Works Vol. 6, 71-196 (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1953), available at

[16] Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, Section VII, at

[17] Ibid.

[18] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2018).

[19] Benhabib, “On the unity and dissonance of critique and praxis,” 862.

[20] See There were other popular mottos as well. Maroon Staff, “U of Cers mock stereotypes, assert pride with T-shirts,” The Chicago Maroon, April 29, 2005 (

[21] Frederick Jameson, “Sartre in Search of Flaubert,” The New York Times, Dec. 27, 1981, available at

[22] Jean-Paul Sartre, Présentation des Temps Modernes, in Les Temps Modernes 1 (October 1945), *2.

[23] Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), xvii.

[24] Sartre, What is Literature?, xvii.

One Comment

  1. In my discipline (Sociology) those who claim that they are “activists scholars” , tend to be the same people who profit most from the current capitalist system by raking in massive speaking fees, genius grants etc. For a majority of celebrity “activist” scholars in sociology, the question is not, do we sacrifice philosophy for the political revolution? Their philosophical engagement has mostly been shallow and their political “engagement” consists of self-serving ted talks and is disconnected from the daily reality of those they claim to speak for. I agree with Bernard, what matters most is justice in practice. I am afraid that we have already done away with philosophy though. Now we need to do away with what has taken its place the appearance of activism that in the end is only another outgrowth of the complete commodification of the academy.

Comments are closed.